This is a craft book about writing fiction that reads like a novel. In other words, Percy is giving writing advice, while at the same time telling engaging stories about himself, his life, his process in writing. It’s all very engaging, sometimes even thrilling, and the advice is solid to inspired.
The book is broken up into different essays, each containing a central lesson: “Thrill Me,” “Urgency,” Making the Extraordinary Ordinary,” “Designing Suspense,” and so on.
Some of the recommendations are familiar. Set goals for your characters; introduce a ticking clock; if it sounds like writing, rewrite it, and so on. But, even though these bits of advice are familiar, they do bear repeating.
A few of the tips I highlighted, because I need to be reminded of them: “Be specific” in writing descriptions, “avoid abstraction.” “Never give us a generic description.” Percy has what he calls an “Exploding helicopter clause”: “If a story doesn’t contain an exploding helicopter, an editor will not publish it, no matter how pretty its sentences and orgasmic its epiphany might be.” (16)
The exploding helicopter is an inclusive term that may refer but is not limited to giant sharks, robots with laser eyes, pirates, poltergeists, were-kittens, demons, slow zombies, fast zombies, talking unicorns, probe-wielding Martians, sexy vampires, barbarians in hairy underwear, and all forms of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic mayhem. (16)
You’ve got to keep the reader wondering, “What happens next?” “What happens next? is why most people read. It’s what makes us fall in love with books.” (17)
One of my favorite lessons from the book concerns what Percy calls “flaming chain saws.” He wanted to find out why Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was such a worldwide hit. So, Percy sat down with the book and outlined it on a legal pad. He color-coded each plot complication, and he ended up using a lot of different pens. What he discovered is that Larsson would introduce a problem on a certain page, then come back to it 50 pages later, and then another 30 pages later, and then another 70 pages later. In the meantime, he would introduce a second problem and do the same thing, and then a third, and a forth, and so on.
Larsson didn’t introduce one problem, neatly wrap it up, and then introduce another. Percy discovered that dipping into and out of those plot complications kept readers turning the pages. And so Percy named those complications “flaming chainsaws.” The author has to keep them in the air as the narrative progresses. “Your success as a storyteller has to do with your ability to juggle them,” (84) says Percy. “Every time the flaming chainsaws pass through your hands, they gain speed, become more perilous, until at last they are extinguished.” (84)
I have one quibble with Percy. He matches singular nouns and plural pronouns: “When a reader first picks up a story, they are like a coma patient…” (119). This is an abomination. No one should do it.
Otherwise, this is a fine book about the craft of writing that contains lots of good advice and is a lot of fun to read.